WHY MILTON MATTERS
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Milton and the English language
Every day we use words and phrases that Milton contributed to the stock of the English language. Like other great writers of his period, he used his knowledge of Latin and other languages to suggest words that might have entered English more organically. The Oxford English Dictionary lists over 600 words which Milton was the first to use (at least as far as we know). Some are typical of the poet who so frequently stretched the language beyond its ordinary limits, and did not enter ordinary usage like infuriate as an adjective or to concise and to epistle as verbs. 135 begin with the prefix un-, which tells you something about Milton's love of oppositions and, well, unrelenting nature. Many are adjectives derived from verbs, some of which like chastening and civilising have stuck. Some belong with his subject matter, like adamantean, arch-fiend, pandemonium, and Satanic; or divorceable and unconjugal; or liturgical; or pedagogism; or prelatise, prelatish, prelatry, and prelatically (from the hated prelates or bishops). Some of his words didn't quite make it, like unexpensive (inexpensive was preferred) or unreducible. Some sound very odd now, and it seems unsurprising that they were not picked up like intervolve or opiniastrous. But all his coinages would have sounded that striking once.
Without Milton, the love-lorn among us would not act besottedly; they would neither feel ecstatic nor find things endearing, or even sensuous. But nor would there be a danger of a downward slide into debauchery or depravity, or some lesser sins, like extravagance, or having a flutter.
Without Milton there would be no cooking, nor snatching of a hurried lunch. Meals (and other things) would not be well-balanced, or well-spiced, and cupboards would not be well-stocked. But at least we would not know how to economise and could never be half-starved, or even eat unhealthily.
Without Milton, we would not padlock gates, or untack horses, or unfurl banners; there would be no acclaim, but neither would the ungenerous and dismissive among us criticise, which would be as well, since others would not know how to disregard.
Without Milton, our experiences would be less exciting. We would not be awe-struck or jubilant; we would not find things enjoyable or exhilarating or stunning or terrific. But then neither would there be any literalism or literalists, and certainly no complacency.
Without Milton, there would be no attacks, airborne or otherwise; and no exploding artillery. Our far-sighted (or perhaps irresponsible and unprincipled) leaders would not be led by vested interests to take undesirable actions, for which they when they mean to argue persuasively can offer only unconvincing reasons. They would not be unaccountable. But after others had done their best to hamstring them, leading to chastening experiences full of unintended consequences, they would not find themselves with the unenviable task of speaking defensively. There would be no embellishing of the truth; and they would not find themselves beleaguered and then embittered.
For the rest of us, things would never be enlightening, much less civilising. We would struggle to describe ourselves and our experiences, for we could no more be hot-headed than cherubic, neither loquacious nor impassive, not moonstruck or unadventurous. There would be no adjustments, no idol-worship, no fragrances or frameworks, no helpfulness or self-delusion, and (mercifully) no pettifoggery. We could never be full-grown, but neither could we know incompleteness or belatedness. There would be no circumscribing of expanses. Zeal would not be reforming or reading matter didactic; rivers (or traffic) would not be slow-moving or ranks serried. We would not describe the countryside as surrounding or ideas as unoriginal or songs as echoing; things could not be awaited or discontinuous.
And, students and teachers note, no great author or difficult topic could ever be thought unexaminable.
It is not only in single words that Milton has left his imprint on the language. The origin of the proverbial phrase 'Every cloud has a silver lining' is to be found in lines from Milton's Comus: 'did a sable cloud | Turn forth her silver lining on the night?'. The closing line of Milton's elegy 'Lycidas' has also become proverbial: 'Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new'.
As with Shakespeare, fragments of whose lines are scattered in the titles of novels and films, Miltonic phrases are found sometimes deliberately alluded to, and sometimes with no idea of their origin in works of modern fiction, film, music, and art, from Aldous Huxley's novel Eyeless in Gaza via an 'Inspector Morse' episode called 'The infernal serpent' to Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials'. The phrase 'darkness visible' has been used as the title not only of a novel by William Golding, but of several other books, a rock album, and an episode of the tv show Hercules. Other phrases that, with slight adjustments, have become proverbial include 'All is not lost', 'fallen on evil days', 'The world was all before them', 'The childhood shows the man', and 'calm of mind, all passion spent'. Milton said of himself 'They also serve who only stand and wait', and had Satan say of himself 'The mind is its own place, and in itself | Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven', and 'Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven'. Such lines are recognisable to many who have never read the works from which they are taken, or anything by Milton.
Milton and other writers
In Lycidas Milton turned away from the metaphysical style of his contemporaries and back to the tradition of pastoral elegy, connecting to writers of the previous century and of the ancient world. He was always able to take a long view both forward and back, and this is one reason why his works have stood the test of time Milton never tried to be fashionable. In Samson Agonistes he produced a neo-classical biblical tragedy, modelled explicitly on the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. English tragedy had for the most part either gone its own way or modelled itself on the Latin plays of Seneca. Milton's return to the Greeks was of huge significance for the future shape of the English tradition. And in Paradise Lost Milton takes on, in a spirit of emulous admiration and rivalry, the great classical epic poets Homer and Virgil. Milton's poem models itself on ancient epic in local details like his celebrated epic similes but in larger ways too as with the emphasis on the moral character (and flaws) of a few central protagonists. It also looks back at classical epic via Renaissance epic on occasion, offering a kind of critical commentary on the landmarks of Renaissance literature. But it is closer in spirit, mode, and style to Homer and Virgil than are Spenser or Tasso or any of Milton's sixteenth-century predecessors. Going back again to the source was for Milton a way of breathing new life and energy into English literature. Without Milton, would Dryden have translated Virgil and Pope Homer? Would Fielding have written Tom Jones or Byron Don Juan, with all their mock-epic apparatus?
Milton's debt to Shakespeare, so beautifully recorded in the poem 'On Shakespeare' prefixed to the 1632 folio, is less visible in his plots or characters, but it is from Shakespeare above all that Milton learns his poetic language and this is especially evident in the early works. But, more importantly, he learns a way with language to remake words to bear new meanings, to create a word or phrase where the language offers none, to stretch imagery and syntax in the effort to represent emotion and thought. This is why Milton stands next to Shakespeare in the English poetic tradition because he is his best reader and his finest pupil. Although in many respects Milton was little engaged with the literature of his time, he worked with Andrew Marvell in his period of political service, and Marvell was to contribute one of the most brilliant critical poems ever written as a preface to the 1674 edition of Paradise Lost. Dryden, though poles apart from Milton in religion and politics, turned Paradise Lost into an English opera. But Milton's best readers were still to come.
For Dr Johnson, that founding voice of English criticism and literary centre of the eighteenth century, Milton was the poet one had to keep coming back to. For Wordsworth, Blake, Shelley, and the other romantics, Milton had become the most inspiring, and problematic of literary ancestors. Shakespeare and Spenser seemed kinder forebears; Milton was difficult, demanding, and troubling, so that those poets and critics after them seemed to relate to Milton within the ethos of Paradise Lost: war, rebellion, duty, obedience. Philip Pullman is perhaps the best-known modern writer to write about such themes whilst himself working through them in his own relations to Milton.
Milton wrote sonnets after they had ceased to be fashionable, achieving a new way for that form to speak not only of love but of self-doubt, duty, war, political betrayal. He wrote lyrics in complex, improvisatory forms that, like his predecessors, drew thoughtfully on the forms of classical and continental verse. Here and in Paradise Lost he resisted the slide into the ubiquitous, mannered, tidy couplets of Dryden and the subsequent generations, and this is another reason why the Romantics, in sweeping away the example of their recent predecessors, felt that it was in Milton that they could find something new. For Milton, poetic form is moral and political the freedom from rhyme is a return to 'ancient liberty', as he calls it in the preface to Paradise Lost.
Milton was a musically educated and visually literate polymath whose works engage with modern scientific, theological, and political ideas. His literary writings reflect and impact upon the values of his culture in many ways. As just one example, we can take an area where his influence is perhaps most currently felt
A flying, shape-changing superhero, magically persuasive, supernaturally powerful not Sylar from 'Heroes' but Satan from Paradise Lost. Milton lived in an age that was looking at the world in new ways, most obviously in its gradual acceptance of a heliocentric cosmos. He had met Galileo on his tour of Italy in 1638, and refers to the astronomer when, in Paradise Lost, he compares Satan's shield to the moon seen through a telescope. Nineteenth-century illustrations of Milton, by John Martin and Gustave Dorι, show visibly how the cosmic scope of Paradise Lost has fired the imagination of readers over the centuries. Ranging from heaven to hell via earth and chaos offering us man and God, angels and devils Milton's authorial vision has an unprecedented and unparalleled scope. He takes epic with its focus on clashes of culture and ideology and its set-piece battles and he takes romance with its wanderings and quests and its encounters with the unknown and sets them on a cosmic scale. In this he has been followed by some of the most popular and powerful writers and filmmakers of the past century. Would science fiction and fantasy literature have been written without Milton? Would we have The Lord of the Rings or Star Trek or Superman or The Matrix? Certainly Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy could not have been written. And that is a superb example of how the best science fiction and fantasy literature, like Paradise Lost, goes furthest from the everyday in order to say the most fundamental and valuable things about politics, society, morality, and human nature.
A Voice for Freedom
'Give me the
liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience,
above all liberties'
Milton matters because his poet's imagination could vividly conceive of freedoms that only subsequent generations would be able to understand and bring into being. He is no abstract theorist in his polemical writings his ideas are bound by the circumstances that suggest them. But he is all the more useful for that. Milton gives us a closely argued and inspiriting defence of freedom from censorship in Areopagitica. Milton enables England to imagine itself, if only for a few, experimental years, as a republic, ruled by the righteous and not by those who inherit their power. He may not be entirely a democrat, but he is a meritocrat, demanding much as we should from those who rule, who must bring all their moral, intellectual, and physical energy to the task of government. And Milton imagines a religious life where those with non-conformist views will be afforded freedom to worship, without condition or intervention from the state. Of course he is no saint he could not see beyond his own religious and political prejudices in such areas as Irish policy. But he demanded of this country that it put freedom at its heart. The revolutionaries of America and France turned to Milton for inspiration one century on. Perhaps we in Britain have much to learn from him still.